The History Of The Northgate JCPenney

Saturday, January 18, 2014 - by John Shearer


The planned closing of the JCPenney department store at Northgate Mall certainly marks a nostalgic end of an era in Chattanooga shopping and business history.

From the bell bottoms of yesteryear to the boat neck tops of today, it has been a Chattanooga retail tradition since it opened nearly 42 years ago.

As was announced earlier this week, the store is one of 33 Penney’s nationwide – and the only one in Tennessee -- that will be closed in the near future as the longtime, but currently struggling, retail chain tries to restructure and become more profitable.

A look back at when the store opened on March 15, 1972, shows a time that was as happy for the chain and for a number of Chattanoogans as the recent closing announcement has been somber.

The store had opened at 10 a.m. that Wednesday with its own ribbon-cutting ceremony shortly after the mall had opened with a 9:30 a.m. celebration.

Of the other two anchor department stores that were there in the early days, Miller Bros., which was where Belk later located, had opened 13 days earlier, while Sears did not build and open on the south end of Northgate until a few months later.

As a result, Sears is not considered an original tenant, although it is certainly a longtime one.

The Northgate store was JCPenney’s third in Chattanooga, although its fourth location. The first store was located in the now-razed former Effron’s store at the southeast corner of Sixth and Market streets in downtown Chattanooga beginning in 1937. That was some 14 years after the chain opened its first Tennessee store at Kingsport.

The Courts Building is now at the site of the former downtown JCPenney, which closed in 1981.

The second JCPenney had opened at Highland Plaza in 1958 and was in operation until March 11, 1972, when it was closed to make way for the move to Northgate. Miller Bros. had also vacated Highland Plaza, and Lovemans later relocated to both stores’ locations in Highland Plaza.

The third JCPenney had opened at Eastgate in 1965, and both the downtown and Eastgate stores were still open when Northgate began business.

Another JCPenney opened at Hamilton Place when that mammoth mall began operations in 1987, and it will be the only Chattanooga store remaining when the one at Northgate closes.

A look at an article in the Chattanooga News-Free Press on the day before JCPenney’s Northgate opening in 1972 shows a chain and store management team that were brimming with pride. And they had good reason, too, as the new facility – the department store and an auto center across the west parking lot -- featured a combined 174,494 square feet of space. This was six times the amount of space of the Highland Plaza store.  

As new manager Glenn Wilson, who had just moved to Chattanooga, remarked in the article, “I’m proud of this new store and so pleased that we can offer our customers greatly expanded services and merchandise assortments.”

While many JCPenney stores had traditionally offered primarily just clothes, the Northgate store was also to sell sporting goods and recreational goods (including apparently guns), cameras, and movie projectors. At its 16-service-bay auto center, it sold Penney’s own line of tires in those days before the chain discontinued its auto centers nationwide in 1983.

But that is just getting started to describe the JCPenney at Northgate Mall in 1972. It also featured a beauty salon where one could visit with or without an appointment; a home furnishings area; a section selling radios, televisions and “portable phonos;” a catalog center; a decorator center; and areas that sold candy, greeting cards and stationary, typewriters, records and tapes, and health aids.

In a newspaper ad before the opening, the store was advertising a men’s polyester suit for $60, polyester pull-on pants for girls for $9.99, a Penncrest refrigerator for $178, and a five-piece dinette suit for $79. The latter included a plastic laminate-top table and four chairs covered in wet-look vinyl.

And last, but certainly not least, the store also had a Coffee Gallery, a 120-seat restaurant that offered a complete luncheon menu “and a wide selection of desserts which will be prepared and baked on the premises.”

As the enthusiastic Mr. Wilson added, “The family restaurant will no doubt be most popular as a place to pause for lunch or a snack as a break in a day of shopping.”

Mr. Wilson, who died in 2009 at the age of 93, had begun working at JCPenney in the 1930s after being inspired reading the autobiography of the firm’s founder, James Cash Penney. Mr. Penney had died only the year before the Northgate store’s opening.

Mr. Wilson had once hosted the famous department store magnate at his home one weekend earlier in his career. Mr. Wilson would also host noted dancer and actress Ginger Rogers at the Northgate JCPenney during a promotional event in 1974.

Among the other management team members at the Northgate JCPenney when it opened in 1972 were Larry Grove, soft lines merchandise manager; Allan Atkins, operations manager, Emile Sauls, hard lines merchandise manager; Don Wallace, sales and merchandise manager; and Heyward Harrington, personnel manager.

Yes, it was a typically all-male management team in those early days of the women’s equal rights movement.

But the store was to have 300 associates, and no doubt many of them were to be women. And associates in 1972 were still waiting on customers in the old-fashioned way, giving them their full attention.

It was a seemingly simpler time, even though America was changing greatly in many ways in the early 1970s with the Vietnam War and other issues.

The retail wars are constant, however, and JCPenney has decided in 2014 to close the Northgate store as it tries to get back on the winning side of the business ledger and not go the way of Woolworth’s and a number of other stores.

The closing of the JCPenney at Northgate also means that only two of the original Northgate Mall tenants – General Nutrition Center and Zales jewelers -- are apparently still operating at the mall.

But the Northgate JCPenney will no doubt be a big retail spot to fill, literally and – with its rich history -- figuratively.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

To see a detailed 2003 profile story on Glenn Wilson, the first Northgate Mall JCPenney manager, click here: http://www.chattanoogan.com/2003/2/15/32601/Chattanoogan-Glenn-Wilson-Fondly.aspx

Or, to read a 2007 story looking back at the opening of Northgate Mall in 1972, click here: http://www.chattanoogan.com/2007/3/17/103757/Memories-Of-Northgate-Mall.aspx)



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